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The Quickest Man On Wheels

On the anniversary of his final race, we pay tribute to Mr Jim Clark, a driver who was as perfectly poised on the track as he was off it

  • Mr Jim Clark (centre) with Ford PR executive Mr Walter Hayes (left) and Lotus teammate Mr Graham Hill (right), Monza, Italy, 1967. Photograph by Mr Rainer W Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

Death still haunts Formula 1. But not like it did in the 1960s when Mr Jim Clark ruled the sport. At Mr Clark’s second Grand Prix, at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium in 1960, two British drivers were killed within minutes of each other: 22-year-old Mr Chris Bristow was decapitated in a crash, and 26-year-old Mr Alan Stacey was hit in the face by a flying bird, which caused him to swerve fatally into the woods at the edge of the track. Such catastrophic events were common. A year later, Mr Clark’s racing-green Lotus and Mr Wolfgang von Trips’ scarlet Ferrari came screaming down a straight at Monza in Italy and touched as they jostled for the turn. Mr Clark’s car spun and came to a stop in the middle of the track. Mr von Trips’ flipped up the sloping bank, killing him and 15 spectators.

Mr Clark used to joke that the only exercise he took was lifting up his legs to get into bed, unlike modern drivers, who exercise like endurance athletes. His strengths were more subtle: ferocious powers of concentration; an unworldly feel for cars, any car; and an exceedingly high pain threshold. Drivers in Mr Clark’s era sat atop the aluminium fuel tanks of their cars, separated only by a thin layer of vinyl. Oil and water ran past their arms to the radiator and oil cooler, which then ran down and around their feet, roasting them throughout each race. Mr Clark would often finish his races in agony. He would rarely show it, though, because Scottish farmers like him were not given to dramatics. Emotions, whether the joys of victory or the agonies of physical pain, were rarely expressed. And his fans loved him for it. The only indication of his nerves was his fingernails, bitten to the quick, even the flesh around the nails chewed and angry.

In a sport of heat, noise and colour, Mr Clark possessed a quiet elegance, a gentle temperament and a winner’s habit. He wore a cardigan on top of his racing overalls when he was hanging around the pits. His glamour lay in his talent. He never seemed nearly as enamoured of his dark good looks as others were. And when he died at the age of 32, when his car flew off the track at Hockenheim in Germany, it felt like the racing gods were taking back their favourite. They did again in 1994 with Mr Ayrton Senna.

  • Mr Jim Clark driving the Lotus-Climax 25 on his way to victory in the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix. Photograph by Bernard Cahier/The Cahier Archive

Today’s champions grow up racing, buzzing around in karts before they turn 10. By the time they reach Formula 1, they have been focused on racing and nothing but for years. Mr Clark, by some measures regarded as the greatest driver that ever lived, had a more normal youth. His parents owned a farm at Edington Mains in the Scottish Borders and Mr Clark grew up with the expectation of taking it over. He attended private schools and did not race a car until he was 20 when a friend, rally driver Mr Ian Scott-Watson, asked him to be his navigator for a local rally. Mr Clark turned out to be a terrible navigator. But when he drove, the car yelped along the rutted track, seconds faster than everyone else.

Driving Aston Martins and Jaguars for a local club in the late 1950s, it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t a car he couldn’t tame, a lumbering beast he couldn’t make fly. Such cars were renowned for their awful handling and weak brakes, yet Mr Clark could handle all of them, winning almost every race he entered, from rallies to hill and track races. When Mr Colin Chapman, the ambitious young founder of Lotus, saw Mr Clark drive laps at Brands Hatch, he could not believe this driver he had never heard of from the lowlands of Scotland could step into a new car and drive faster than his works drivers.

Mr Chapman was the perfect foil for Mr Clark; the sharp-elbowed, can-do entrepreneur to the reticent Scotsman. Mr Chapman took care of the cars and the business of Lotus and let Mr Clark do the driving. Even Mr Clark’s peers could barely fathom what it was he could do that they couldn’t. The great New Zealand driver Mr Bruce McLaren recalled racing against Mr Clark at a wet, slick Silverstone in 1963. Mr Clark would drift into turns and brake so late the spectators would leap backwards, only for Mr Clark to brush past the kerb, his mouth hanging open, or his tongue pressed between his teeth. “The tyres were holding a tenuous grip on the road with the body and the chassis leaning and pulling at the suspension like a lizard trying to avoid being prized off a rock by a small boy,” said Mr McLaren.

  • Lotus team owner Mr Colin Chapman and Mr Jim Clark at the Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, 1963. Photograph by Sutton Images 

The formal gongs and prizes duly piled up for such a remarkable talent. Twenty-five Grand Prix wins in 72 starts. Thirty-three pole positions. World championships in 1963 and 1965, a magical year in which he won six Grand Prix in a row interrupted by victory in the Indianapolis 500. He remains the only driver ever to have won the Indy 500 and the F1 championship in the same year. Time magazine put him on its cover that year, with the headline “The Quickest Man On Wheels”. The reporter wrote of Mr Clark’s quick reflexes, “he could probably pluck a fly out of mid-air”. His former business adviser, Mr John Stephenson, told the magazine that one freezing day, Mr Clark had driven him in an ordinary saloon. “Suddenly we were going into a tight downhill left-hander. I figured it as a 70mph corner, but there we were doing 90. The tail starts to go and I thought, this is a shunt for sure. Then Jim made a tiny correction with the steering wheel and we were through the corner. All he said was, ‘Wee bit slippery back there.’”

Behind the steering wheel, Mr Clark was supremely decisive. He once explained that the reason for his success was that he focused on every last detail of his driving. He thought about every turn, every sound coming from the engine, every gear change – and he thought about them hard, each one in isolation. He used what he thought to get better. “He was smooth and clean and hardly ever had an accident,” said his friend and rival, Sir Jackie Stewart. “He drove with precision.” It’s a curious term to use of a driver in such a flamboyant sport. Precise. But it sums up Mr Clark perfectly. A quiet farmer who returned home between races to tend to his family’s sheep, but drove with a fierce accuracy, which taunted and finally killed him.

  • Mr Jim Clark in the pit lane, Italian Grand Prix. Monza, September 1967. Photograph by LAT Photographic/REX Shutterstock

It was 7 April 1968, Palm Sunday. Mr Clark had been having trouble warming up his tyres and was waiting for a new set. It was a nothing race, a contractual-obligation Formula 2 event he had entered mainly because racing drivers then didn’t earn what they do today and had to race where they could. The Hardt forest hemmed in Germany’s Hockenheim track. “Don’t expect anything fantastic. I’m not going to take any chances until the tyres come in,” he told his mechanic on the starting grid. As he hurtled down one of the fastest stretches, it’s presumed that his tyre burst, sending him into a tree at 160mph. He died instantly.

Shortly before his own death behind the wheel, Mr Ayrton Senna commissioned a painting showing the starting grid at the Monaco Grand Prix with the racers he considered the greatest in history. There was Mr Senna, naturally, as well as Sirs Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart, and Messrs Juan Manuel Fangio, Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda, but in pole position in his iconic green Lotus was Mr Jim Clark. The reason was simple enough, Mr Senna explained. Mr Clark was “the best of the best”. Now and for evermore.